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Does it matter how many gays there are in Britain?

2010 September 25
by Paul Vallely

The giveaway was the adverb. One in 100 adults is gay, according to figures from Office of National Statistics in the first-ever official count of the sexuality of the British population. “Only one in 100”, trumpeted a number of newspapers. To be fair, they could have been saying “only” because previous official estimates suggested that between five and seven per cent of the nation was homosexual. After all, the Treasury had announced it was working on that larger figure in the run-up to the civil partnership act in 2004 with the assumption that about 3.5 million Britons were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

But there was a blast of triumphalism in the way that the news was presented by some papers. Just 1.5 per cent of the population described themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual in interviews with 247,623 people, the biggest pool of social data ever assembled in Britain outside a full national census. That number, one right-wing newspaper observed, is “far lower than the estimate used as a basis for the distribution of millions of pounds in public money to sexual equality causes”.

Such responses explain why gay lobbyists were defensive in their reaction. The way statistics were collected may mean the new figure is too low, the gay rights charity Stonewall swiftly riposted. Asking people on doorsteps or over the phone might have deterred some people from giving accurate responses, particularly those who were not openly gay at home.

In fact, the statisticians had gone out of their way to minimise such problems. Those being asked were given a card – one of a series of cards – with different code numbers alongside each response, and asked to read out the appropriate number. Differently coded-cards were used for different members of a family living at the same address to ensure a father did not know what his son’s answers might mean. The survey quizzed more than twenty times as many as the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles had done in 2000 using a database of 12,000.

So does it matter how many people are gay? Philosophically, of course not. No-one would argue that we have to show greater respect to Muslims than to Jews because there are more of them; the same survey showed that only 0.6 per cent of the population are Jewish compared with Muslims who constitute 4.2 per cent. But what is philosophically preposterous can sometimes be politically potent.

The Diversity Industry is fond of lumping race, gender, religion and sexuality together as objects of potential discrimination. Yet analogies between these categories are far from exact. Race is the most obvious area in which there is a need to guard against discrimination because race can be the clearest measure of identity, though even that is far less precise than is generally supposed; if my mother is Jewish Russian and my father is Catholic Irish what does that make me?

Religion is even more imprecise. The survey showed that 71 per cent of British residents describe themselves as Christians – a figure which is far higher than either Richard Dawkins or the Pope might have supposed. New Atheists often suggest that religion is fair game for their derision in a way which they know would be unacceptable with race; they defend that by saying that we can all chose our religion whereas we are plain lumbered with our race. But religion is far more complex; it is bound up with cultural inheritance and community bonds – individuals can reject a religion’s dogmas yet still find that their sense of identity remains bound up with it.

With sexuality things can get even more blurry. Just 0.5 per cent of those surveyed said they were bisexual – interestingly, mainly women – but it is normative now in psychoanalytical circles to see human sexuality as a spectrum rather than as two distinct camps of hetero and homo; we are all, Freud suggested, “polymorphously perverse” with temperament and experience combining to create sexual identity. There is far more to sexual identity than a nature/nurture dichotomy can suggest.

Ambiguity is, of course, the enemy of stability, which is why societies come up with a range of taboos on everything from property and promise-keeping to diet and drugs to suicide and sex. Any activity which might imperil social stability can be subject to arbitrary regulations which subjugate the interests of individuals to those of the group. Western culture since the Enlightenment has been about probing and challenging such rules in a way that individuals are allowed to take greater control of their personal destiny.

Most essentially, in contemporary understanding, that has been about allowing individuals to shrug off the labels imposed upon them by others and to define themselves. One of the things that has been so reductive about Dawkins and the New Atheists is their insistence on creating caricatures of religion which are easy and fun to attack, but which carry no understanding of the depth of the religious experience and only hold good when addressing extreme fundamentalists. Gays have found common cause with Dawkins against the Pope, but they might give pause to think about how they would feel if his shallow debating techniques were directed against them.

But in the end the battle over the size of the gay community is not about labelling versus self-definition. It is about political power, influence and provision. And there are other factors in that besides numbers. After all, until the feminist movement, the fact that women constituted 52 per cent of the population, did not do much for women in their struggle for equality. Britain’s Hindus who, we now learn, represent 1.5 per cent of the population, often complain that they are ignored by comparison with the Jewish community who are only half their number.  The gay and lesbian population, the survey shows, is better educated and more economically successful than the rest of the population; nearly twice as many are graduates and almost half work in managerial or professional jobs.

Competing self-interest among different minorities is, however, a poor basis for social decision-making. The common good demands respect for minorities whatever their size – or their degree of influence. How that respect is demonstrated is not a matter of self-evident consensus, of course, which is why there is soon to be a behind-the-scenes row between Nick Clegg and David Cameron over Liberal Democrat demands that gay marriage be legalised. Cameron was a strong supporter of civil partnerships when the legislation came before parliament when he was Leader of the Opposition, but voiced reservations over calling them ‘marriages’ – something which would cause him problems among the more traditionalist sections of his party.

Whatever the outcome of that Coalition tussle there is a clear case for reform of inequities within the existing civil partnership arrangements – like the issue highlighted by Brian Paddick this week who complained that if he died his partner would be entitled to only two-fifths of his pension, where a wife would get half. Clearly the law needs changing to eliminate such inequities. But such changes should be a matter of principle rooted in an indivisible respect for the rights of every minority. The size of that minority – or its political lobbying power – should not be important.

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